The Digital Revolution and its Effects on Reading

Published: August 2019

Johannes Gutenberg introduced to the world the first mechanical movable type printing and forever changed the way books were written, read and stored. His invention was hailed as a revolution in printing and was regarded as the milestone in printing and publishing. Before Gutenberg, books were considered a luxury and manuscripts were the only go-to books, which were accessible only to a few elites. The only way to reproduce books was by re-writing it all over again. Gutenberg, with his invention, changed the way people could access books and thus, their reading habits.

Today, in the 21st century, we are witnessing another similar revolution – the digital technology. Internet has brought the world together. It has changed the way we perceive, comprehend and process information. Though internet has changed the way we identify information, it has also snatched away our attention span. A recent research from Jampp, concluded that attention span is decreasing by a whopping 88 per cent, every year. The number is not only shocking but is also a cause for concern. With digital technology becoming inexpensive and more accessible, traditional reading habit has seen a sharp drop over the years.

The millennials, Gen Y and Gen Z, labelled as the fast generation, have no time or patience to read long essays and immerse themselves in good books. We don’t blame them, though! They are just tuning themselves to the rapid changes around them and no longer read lengthy articles or essays or carry big books with them. So they turn towards e-books, audiobooks or the book-summarising subscription apps like Blinkist, Rivet or Scribd, where they can scan through to find relevant information or the information that is most interesting to them. This attitude has given birth to several ‘tiny tales’, which are extremely popular among baby boomers, millennials, Gen Y and Gen Z.

The sunny side

When Amazon introduced its first e-reader about a decade ago, publishers panicked that digital books would take over the industry, just as it transformed the music industry. And when that fear came true, the impact wasn’t bad at all. Green warriors acknowledged e-books as an eco-friendly alternative that can save thousands of trees. People no longer had to carry 10 books at once just to get basic information. A tiny device that weighs only a few grams could now hold thousands of books, and the idea by itself made a lot of young generation switch to try reading. The best part – many of them stuck to that habit. Unlike reading online, where there is constant distraction like floating ads or pop-ups, e-books gave a feeling like that of reading a hard bound book. The Internet generation found it easier to customise, carry and grasp from e-books and moved on from reading books and using bookmarks to bookmarking in e-books. On e-books, one can also highlight and make notes and easily navigate to a particular topic, without having to flip through several pages. Also, e-books are comparatively inexpensive and imperishable. Once purchased, it stays in the cloud forever.

Recently launched-yet-widely popular audio books are another aspect of digital revolution. According to The Guardian, from 2014-19, print book sales in UK have dropped by 5.4 percent, while audiobooks have seen a surge of 43 percent. Such has been the popularity of audiobooks Unlike e-books, which still needs one to physically hold the device, concentrate and read, audiobooks get an upper hand because it allows multi-tasking. One can be busy with other work and still be listening to audiobooks.

Podcasts and book-summarizing subscriptions and apps are other innovations that have received both appreciation and flak. These apps provide big ideas in small packages and are popular among bookworms and casual readers alike. These apps narrate summaries of 1000-worded books in just 5 to 15 minutes, catering to the ‘fast generation’. Self-help books, business books and non-fiction have made book-summarisng apps and podcasts a safe haven.

The digital revolution has not only attracted many readers, it has also given birth to many writers, who could not earlier publish their works. While publishing a physical book needs an author to run from pillar-to-post looking for publishers, digital books can be published at your fingertips, without even having to move from the chair. This can be considered as one of the biggest positives of evolution of digital technology.

The greys

Let’s be honest. Nothing can replace the feeling of sitting in a cozy room, flipping through the pages of your favourite book while sipping your drink. It is unfortunate that this generation does not believe in/ and has no time to pause and feel a certain line or quote, and reminisce it time and again or simply touch those lines in the book and feel the depth of the author’s emotions. While audiobooks are great and allows one to multi-task, it snatches from users their ability to visualize and bring to life the author’s characters in the book. It is killing the curious mind. As audiobooks and book summaries mostly use simple language, listeners are losing the art of getting to know the authors’ emotions conceived in original language. Since one engages shallowly with auditory content, they do not gain the same benefit as when they read a book. Physical dictionary has become obsolete – thanks to digital dictionary available right below the highlighted word. They are also dangerously giving rise to one-sided arguments. Younger generation is losing their attention span, which, experts say, can only be brought back by spending hours reading a physical book without distractions. If one cannot concentrate for several minutes, there is no question of substantiating productivity while climbing the success ladder.

In conclusion, while we can say that change is in the air for booklovers, the extent of this transformation, remains firmly under the readers’ control.